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Sundance 2018, part 3: The Festival’s darkest films, reviewed

Jen (Matilda Lutz) seeks vengeance for her rape in "Revenge." (Courtesy of Rezo Films)

This is one article in a series of Sundance coverage. Follow The Daily’s reviews of select Sundance films every day this week, extending into next week.

Content warning: These reviews contain mentions and descriptions of sexual assault.

Sundance may be known for pushing critically acclaimed films to the forefront (think last year’s “Call Me By Your Name” and “The Big Sick”) and allowing independent films to be picked up for theatrical release, but it also has its fair share of niche films. Amongst this collection are a series of bleak, dark films – some of the most that I’ve ever seen. These appear in all categories, including the U.S. Dramatic Competition, World Cinema Dramatic Competition and Midnight (a special category reserved for horror or uniquely dark flicks). Of the 12 films I saw at Sundance this past weekend, I’ve reviewed three that could be described as being terrifyingly grim in one way or another – and I enjoyed (almost) every second.

Victoria Carmen Sonne appears in “Holiday” by Isabella Eklöf, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Holiday” – directed by Isabella Eklöf; starring Victoria Carmen Sonne, Lai Yde and Thijs Römer

Many have claimed that this Danish/Dutch/Swedish film undoubtedly contained one of the most graphic, devastating rape scenes in contemporary media built for public consumption. I entered the film under the expectation that it’d be a prolonged series of intense sexual scenes littering the film, but instead it was one scarring, incredibly terrifying scene that burned into my mind for the entirety of the 92-minute film.

Director Isabella Eklöf spoke briefly before the screening, providing a brief content warning but ultimately thanking Sundance for allowing her to present this “weird film.” Weird, to say the least; the film is a slow, slow burn that ends with no satisfaction in resolution and the impression that life is too miserable to actually have a happy ending. The visually stunning “Holiday” tells the tale of young Sascha (Victoria Carmen Sonne), who is on “holiday” (or on vacation, as we Americans say) in Turkey with her crime boss, Michael (Lai Yde) – with whom she has a sexual, and potentially romantic, relationship. This relationship, however, spirals into something much more violent and manipulative, but it’s the question of whether Sascha has the guts, or even the free will, to pull away from his grasp that frames the film.

If you’re able to stomach it, “Holiday” is graphic, but necessarily so. The image of Michael brutally raping Victoria and the calm aftermath of her smiling and chatting with the others on vacation with them are so strongly juxtaposed that it brings into the question everything I’ve considered about what people need to tolerate to survive in this world. With the recent – and so incredibly late – increasing awareness of sexual assault, “Holiday” is relevant in the most frightening way.

Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) and Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) share a tender moment in the otherwise violent “Lizzie.” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Lizzie” – directed by Craig William Macneill; starring Chloë Sevigny, Kristen Stewart and Jamey Sheridan

“Lizzie” is a somewhat extrapolated look at the infamous 1982 murders in which Borden was tried and acquitted for the violent axe murders of her father and stepmother. Lizzie (Chloë Sevigny) is a wealthy daughter in an American household in which Irish maid Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart) is hired. Branded as being “based on a true story,” “Lizzie” tells of the burgeoning romance between the eponymous character and Bridget, but as far as I can tell, there’s not much definitive evidence that they were in fact in a relationship, only speculation. However, much of the press surrounding “Lizzie” involved this same-sex relationship.

The film itself wasn’t exquisite, but it had enough interesting elements; I can also confirm that Stewart really does only have one facial expression, but in this film, it worked (also, her Irish accent was quite enjoyable). Sevigny plays a stoic, passionate Lizzie, defensive of Bridget, whom her stepmother insists on calling “Maggie” instead of her actual name. Lizzie’s father also begins to sexually assault Bridget, but he swears her to secrecy; Lizzie discovers this, which fuels even more hatred and eventually driving her and Bridget (at least in the film) to jointly murder her father and stepmother in a deliberately planned attack involving quite a bit of nudity and plenty of blood.

For me, this film raised the question of what constitutes too much sexual content, especially for a narrative not fully premised around characters’ sexual and romantic lives. As I took the bus back to where I was staying, I overheard a few other people who had seen Lizzie discussing whether or not one scene – in which Lizzie and Bridget are having sex in a barn and Lizzie’s father spots them through the window – that lasted at least a minute was too gratuitous. Both the screenwriter Bryce Kass and director (Craig William Macneill) are men.

Contrarily, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” (which won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic) was written and directed by women, which contained a series of arguable sex scenes in and of itself. Nevertheless, in “Cameron Post,” the titular character’s sexuality is the focus of the film – in “Lizzie,” it’s more of a way to dramatize the story and even eroticize Lizzie Borden’s narrative as an act of revenge and fight against the humiliation she faced from her father. Was it too much? I don’t know; in its defense, it did feel like an insertion that carried the plot along and cemented Lizzie and Bridget’s passions for each other, even if it could have been abridged.

Jen (Matilda Lutz) seeks vengeance for her rape in “Revenge.” (Courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Revenge” – directed by Coralie Fargeat; starring Matilda Lutz, Kevin Janssens, Vincent Colombe and Guillaume Bouchède

I’m a film viewer with an extremely high tolerance for excessive gore, but “Revenge” really toed the line, and I gleefully embraced my discomfort. “Revenge” takes the classic “rape and revenge” film popular in the 1970s and turns it on its head; traditionally, these exploitation films (ones that utilize sensationalized trends and popular media of the era) were B-movies, low budget or considered gaudy and trashy. That’s not to say that this film deserves to be universally critically lauded, but “Revenge” is a higher-budget French film that was cinematically stunning while still paying homage to those older films in its production design and extremely graphic material.

The plot of “Revenge” was unsurprisingly simple. A married French man, Richard (Kevin Janssens), takes his mistress Jen (Matilda Lutz) on vacation, but then Richard’s buddies Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) show up for a hunting trip. After a crazy night, Stan (in true privileged white male fashion) decides that he’s entitled to Jen and decides to violently rape her as Dimitri acts as a bystander when Richard leaves for the day. Without spoiling the rest (in the case that you actually would like to watch this film, you never know), Jen embarks on a hunt to kill the three men after they nearly kill her in order to cover their tracks – which she does, one by one, in gloriously bloody detail. The audience clapped and shouted after Jen killed each of the men, which could only be described as delightful, in a weird way.

I can’t describe the film as a true horror film, outside of one sequence in which Jen ingests peyote and goes on an incredibly intense trip that ends in Jen hearing voices and quite a bit of bodily horror. It’s not “Alien”-level in terms of partial jump-scares, but it’s gruesome enough that you’ll want to shield your eyes at least a little. I personally can’t handle horror, but I can handle gore, so I was pleased to see that “Revenge” took advantage of the genre, taking the extreme violence and running with it. The overall narrative structure was undeniably predictable, but viewers weren’t here to be surprised by the ending of the film. Rather, the film relatively successfully accomplishes its goal of giving the audience an exposition and a three-part thrill as Jen tracks down each man.

To a certain extent, a small section of the second act of the film was so gory it was almost comedic, such as when Jen wakes up again and again from a repeated dream, dying each time and then waking up in an inception-like format. The unbelievably large amount of blood – to the point that you realize it’s essentially implausible – also turns into this eerie sort of humor that makes the film more nuanced than it appears to be at first glance.

Still, the film is filled with plenty of bloody scenes guaranteed to make you want to flinch away or cover your eyes, but nothing compared to the last scene. When I first read descriptions of “Revenge,” I didn’t quite believe the claims that were made regarding just how much blood the film contained, claims that I continued to ignore until the very last scene. The only true way I can describe this scene is that it was as if someone poured buckets of water on the ground and on the walls, but the water that pooled and splashed on the ground and soaked the walls were blood; the film lived up to the claim that audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival were shocked at the utter amount of blood. If you’re up for indulging in 108 minutes of gory discomfort with an immensely satisfying, female-empowering ending, find a way to catch “Revenge” – and hope it gets picked up for a theatrical release.

Contact Olivia Popp at oliviapopp ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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